Drawing lines: Digital Humanities and Web Science

One of the discussions I had at InterFace concerned the relationship between Digital Humanities and Web Science. My own opinion is that some things are DH; some are WebSci; some are both; others are neither 😉

Intriguingly, when I remarked upon my surprise about the ‘digital humanities’ positioning of InterFace to a colleague, her response was “well it isn’t Web Science is it?” (This seemed to imply to me that if you are working in an area where technology and the humanities overlap, it must be WebSci or DH! I suspect I misunderstood…)

So: her stance as I understand it is that Digital Humanities can be described as the application of technology in the humanities, while WebSci can be seen as the application of methods from the humanities (and social sciences) to technology.

I’m probably taking the comparison too seriously, but let’s go with this anyway: although there’s an extent to which its true, I think it short changes WebSci in some ways. (I don’t know enough about DH to have an opinion on that half of the equation!)

Web Science does involve use of tools from the humanities and social sciences — but also from Network Science, Computer Science, Biology, AI and plenty of other areas (is Art part of the humanities? Is Politics?). Besides, WebSci — the study of the Web as an ongoing process, and its impact on society, and vice versa — is about the use of tools from those disciplines in the context of the web (and internet), not ‘technology’ in general.

Of course, drawing lines around disciplines can be a bit of a false start anyway: one person may self-describe as a Web Scientist but be perceived by others as a Sociologist or a Digital Humanist. It all depends on context, and it’s all shades of grey.


On returning to Facebook (and, did they really delete my data?)

So I’ve been back on Facebook for a few days. Comments:

I haven’t engaged with it much, at least not for reading/writing updates. This is as I’m yet to Implement My Plan: I shall make two lists, one for ‘people whose updates I’d really like to read’, one for ‘people to whom I’m happy to broadcast my updates’. The former list is what I’ll probably skim once a day, the latter of course is my filter. Until those lists exist, I don’t find Facebook very usable as a tool for reading or writing updates within my network of contacts.

(I find it slightly strange blogging about this, as of course anyone can read this post, and so Facebook friends who don’t see material from me may consequently feel offended. Well, I guess I’ll cross bridges as I come to them!)

I have used Facebook to exchange messages with a few people. Personally, I far prefer email (it’s non-proprietary; it’s more secure; I can write offline)… but lots of people initiate messages from Facebook. I can see why, I think: it’s convenient, you don’t have to remember someone’s email address.

I have used Facebook to re-initiate conversation with the friend I mentioned in a previous post, the person who is important and yet for whom I only had Facebook as a contact mechanism. I’ve been really glad to re-establish that connection.

Although I didn’t plan to wipe the previous account, that happened, and I’m not totally bothered by it: I’m down to 55 Facebook contacts at the moment, and that’s kind of nice. I didn’t have the heartache of defriending many people!

I do suspect that Facebook have figured out who I am — by which I mean, kept data on my old account and linked it internally with the new account. Why? Well, they’re suggesting I may know a person I was friends with last time, but with whom I share no mutual friends… so why else would they suggest her? Dodgy!

InterFace’11: good event, surprised by the Digital Humanities positioning

I had the pleasure of attending InterFace’11 last week. It first ran two years ago in Southampton, so it was interesting to return two years on:  This year it was an ambitious 2.5 days event, with a range of activities including things I’d seen at InterFace’09 (lightning talks, ‘speed networking’, keynotes) but also workshops, ‘how to’ sessions and an unconference. I had to duck out of much of the second day, but what I did see was good! There was a good diversity of lightning talks from participants — the ones I caught covered topics from the ancient world to tangible interaction to maps as narrative.

Kicking off the unconference

I particularly enjoyed the keynote from Stephen Scrivener (self-described Computer Scientist and Artist), who spoke about design practice and research. The other keynote was Melissa Terras, who among other things remarked that we can define digital humanities until the cows come home (I paraphrase) — this reminded me of similar conversations in the Web Science community.

I was surprised by a comment by one of the organisers in the closing session: I forget the exact phrasing, but they referred to InterFace as a digital humanities conference, which really isn’t how I perceive it. (There was a strong focus in the area this year, but it wasn’t solely DH.) As I know a couple of the people who were involved in its inception two years ago, I promptly started rummaging around… 🙂

My understanding is that InterFace was originally positioned to avoid being Yet Another Digital Humanities Conference. However, I gather that none of this year’s organisers had attended a prior InterFace (and they also happened to largely be ‘digital humanists’) so almost certainly weren’t exposed to that ethos.

Despite being surprised by the DH-specific positioning, this was certainly an engaging event with plentiful learning opportunities! The organisers did a stellar job, so much kudos to them.

A personal perspective on the WebSci summer school

You can probably tell from my previous burst of blogging that the recent WebSci summer school in Galway enthused me. As I believe I mentioned before, I wasn’t totally certain of what to expect or if the week would be worthwhile, but it absolutely was.

I had two minor niggles: firstly, 90 minutes is a very long slot even for speakers of keynote quality. Secondly, I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘talks’ and ‘tutorials’ (I expected the latter to be more interactive, and to include exercises). Overall, however, it it was an extremely well-executed week with a great range of speakers and topics… for instance, see my write-ups of talks from Wendy Hall, Bernie Hogan and Marc Smith, not to mention my rants about data and social networks.

For me personally, I especially valued three aspects:

  1. I met some new and wonderful (not to mention enthusiastic!) people
  2. I got to broaden myself, learning some new stuff around natural language processing and network analysis (a change, given my UX/HCI background!)
  3. I had some thoughts about a nice piece of Web Science-y work I’d like to do in advance of WebSci’12

Yes, we were enthusiastic...

It was a valuable week: if future WebSci summer schools run in a similar vein, I’d certainly recommend them.

A tentative return to Facebook

(My prior posts on this topic: initial departure, reflections one week in, realising I miss close friends)

A couple of weeks have passed since I courted controversy by leaving Facebook. After some reflection, I’ve decided to return. Here’s why:

The big reason I left was the overhead of managing multiple types of contact across a single network. As I bemoaned in my initial post on this topic, I have 295 ‘friends’ from all walks of life, and no idea what value (if any!) the majority place upon our online connection.

What have I learned?

  • It is not necessary to religiously read people’s updates each day. I haven’t missed the activity itself, or (to my knowledge!) missed any critical news. A few close friends have had big news and they got in touch to let me know: Facebook was never the only mechanism for staying in touch.
  • I thought I’d miss material from close friends, status updates in general, and event invites. I was mostly wrong: I did miss material from close friends (more than I expected)… however, the latter two aspects didn’t affect me.
  • I didn’t expect to miss photo sharing, but I did. It’s not just having a platform to share my photos, but being able to see the photos of others… for instance, I graduated on Monday, and I’m going to a wedding tomorrow: it’s nice to see other people’s images from those events.

Before I left, I was reading text updates from everyone and rich updates from close friends. I was broadcasting my own updates to all, which I found problematic.

(An aside: the broadcasting issue may seem a touch paradoxical to those who follow me on Twitter, where I broadcast publicly! However, I’ve always used Twitter as a work tool, and Facebook as a personal tool. I’m comfortable on Twitter because I know what audience I am addressing, and because of the asymmetry of relationships on Twitter: people follow me if they wish, and don’t otherwise. Unlike Facebook, I don’t feel an obligation to tailor my content to ‘suit’ the people who choose to follow me.)

I’m going to restrict my Facebook updates to a subset of my current contacts. I’m not sure how difficult I’ll find it to identify that subset, but I hope it’ll be worth the effort. I’m also going to stop feeling I ‘ought’ to skim updates from everyone!

The IPR and data mining issues remain, and are clearly a negative facet. But Facebook’s usefulness to me seems to outweigh that for now.

Addendum: the account is fully wiped now, which handily removes the issue of “How shall I handle this big old set of contacts?” (It also means all those pictures I was tagged in are scattered to the wind… facial recognition software aside.) I think on balance I’m pleased with this situation, but if I change my mind I’ll let you know!

Digital.Humanities@Oxford Summer School 2011

After visiting Dave de Roure for the afternoon yesterday, I found myself with the chance to attend the final talk of the day at the Digital Humanities Summer School. Ray and Lynne Siemens were speaking on “The Uneasy Pursuit of the Future of the Book” and “Building and Maintaining a Team Approach in a Rapidly-Advancing Area of Research and Development”.

I found Ray’s talk a nice alternative perspective on how we (do not) understand the properties of books as traditional artefacts, let alone electronic books or iPads and similar. I googled the speakers to try and see whether they’ve taken any work to the Hypertext conference as yet, but they have not: perhaps this is some fresh digital humanities blood to recruit 🙂

Ray also asked some very ‘Web Science’ questions, including a pondering about measuring the impact of the web is on how we read and experience information. I asked how he’d document the features of textual forms: he spoke about the ‘architecture’ of the book, and the meaning of aspects such as indexes and page numbers… lots of interesting subjective things going on here.

Meanwhile, Lynne spoke about mechanisms to conduct multidisciplinary work. Like Dave, for me the main takeaway was “Wow, I’m really privileged that such work is a relatively normal affair to me” — it was a good reminder that such work is not necessarily everyday, and that approaches to it are not obvious to everyone.

WebSci’11 videos online

The good organisers of WebSci’11 recorded the talks, which are now available online. (videolectures.net is new to me: quite a slick site.)

My talk on Teasing Apart with Meta Analysis, an approach for understanding user experiences online, is here. Meanwhile, this past post describes the gist of it, and links to the paper and slides.